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Alexander Berzin - Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon

Alexander Berzin - Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon

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Introduction to the five Tibetan traditions of Buddhism an Bon.
Introduction to the five Tibetan traditions of Buddhism an Bon.

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The Berzin Archives - Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon
The Berzin Archives
Introductory Comparison of the Five TibetanTraditions of Buddhism and Bon
Search Page Contents
 Alexander BerzinBerlin, Germany, January 10, 2000supplemented with excerpts from a lecture on the same topicMunich, Germany, January 30, 1995 
Bon as the Fifth Tradition of Tibet
Most people speak of Tibet as having four traditions: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, andGelug, with Gelug being the reformed continuation of the earlier Kadam tradition. At thenonsectarian conference of 
(incarnate lamas) and abbots that His Holiness theDalai Lama convened in Sarnath, India, in December 1988, however, His Holinessemphasized the importance of adding the pre-Buddhist Tibetan tradition of Bon to thefour and always speaking of the five Tibetan traditions. He explained that whether or notwe consider Bon a Buddhist tradition is not the important issue. The form of Bon thathas developed since the eleventh century of the Common Era shares enough incommon with the four Tibetan Buddhist traditions for us to consider all five as a unit.
Hierarchy and Decentralization
Before we discuss the similarities and differences among the five Tibetan traditions, weneed to remember that none of the Tibetan systems forms an organized church like, for example, the Catholic Church. None of them is centrally organized in this manner.Heads of the traditions, abbots, and so on are mainly responsible for giving monasticordination and for passing on lineages of oral transmissions and tantric empowerments(initiations). Their main concern is not with administration. Hierarchy mostly affectswhere people sit in the large ritual ceremonies (
); how many cushions they sit on;the order in which they are served tea; and so on. For various geographic and culturalreasons, the Tibetan people tend to be extremely independent and each monasterytends to follow its own ways. The remoteness of the monasteries, huge distancesbetween them, and difficulties in travel and communication have reinforced thetendency toward decentralization.
Common Features
The five Tibetan traditions share many common features, perhaps as much as eightypercent or more. Their histories reveal that the lineages do not exist as separatemonoliths isolated within concrete barriers, without any contact with each other. Thetraditions have congealed into five from their founding masters having gathered andcombined within themselves various lines of transmission, mostly from India. By
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The Berzin Archives - Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon
 convention, their followers have called each of their syntheses "a lineage," but many of the same lines of transmission form part of the blends of other traditions as well.
Lay and Monastic Traditions 
The first thing the five share in common is having both lay and monastic traditions. Their lay traditions include married
engaged in intensive tantric meditationpractice and ordinary laypeople whose Dharma practice entails mostly reciting mantras,making offerings at temples and at home, and circumambulating sacred monuments.The monastic traditions of all five have the full and novice monk ordination and thenovice nun ordination. The full nun ordination never came to Tibet. People normally jointhe monasteries and nunneries around the age of eight. Monastic architecture anddécor are mostly the same in all traditions.The four Buddhist schools share the same set of monastic vows from India, Mula-Sarvastivada. Bon has a slightly different set of vows, but most of them are the same asthe Buddhist. A prominent difference is that Bonpo monastics take a vow to bevegetarian. The monastics of all traditions shave their heads; remain celibate; and wear the same maroon sleeveless habit, with a skirt and a shawl. Bon monastics merelysubstitute blue for yellow in the central panels of the vest.
Sutra Study 
 All Tibetan traditions follow a path that combines sutra and tantra study with ritual andmeditation practice. The monastics memorize a vast number of scholarly and ritual textsas children and study by means of heated debate. The sutra topics studied are thesame for both Buddhists and Bonpos. They include
(far-reachingdiscrimination, the perfection of wisdom) concerning the stages of the path,
(the middle way) concerning the correct view of reality (voidness),
(valid ways of knowing) concerning perception and logic, and
 (special topics of knowledge) concerning metaphysics. The Tibetan textbooks for eachtopic differ slightly in their interpretations not only among the five traditions, but alsoeven among the monasteries within each tradition. Such differences make for moreinteresting debates. At the conclusion of a lengthy course of study, all five traditionsgrant a degree, either 
.The four Tibetan Buddhist schools all study the four traditions of Indian Buddhistphilosophical tenets - Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Chittamatra, and Madhyamaka. Although they explain them slightly differently, each accepts Madhyamaka as presentingthe most sophisticated and precise position. The four also study the same Indianclassics by Maitreya, Asanga, Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Shantideva, and so on. Again,each school has its own spectrum of Tibetan commentaries, all of which differ slightlyfrom each other.
Tantra Study and Practice 
The study and practice of tantra spans all four or six classes of tantra, depending on theclassification scheme. The four Buddhist traditions practice many of the same Buddha-figures (deities,
), such as Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjushri, Chakrasamvara(Heruka), and Vajrayogini (Vajradakini). Hardly any Buddha-figure practice is theexclusive domain of one tradition alone. Gelugpas also practice Hevajra, the mainSakya figure, and Shangpa Kagyupas practice Vajrabhairava (Yamantaka), the mainGelug figure. The Buddha-figures in Bon have similar attributes to the ones in Buddhism
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The Berzin Archives - Introductory Comparison of the Five Tibetan Traditions of Buddhism and Bon
 - for example, figures embodying compassion or wisdom - only different names.
Meditation in all five Tibetan traditions entails undertaking lengthy retreats, often for three years and three phases of the moon. Retreats are preceded by intensivepreliminary practices, requiring hundreds of thousands of prostrations, mantrarepetitions, and so on. The number of preliminaries, the manner of doing them, and thestructure of the three-year retreat differ slightly from one school to another. Yet,basically, everyone practices the same.
Ritual practice is also very similar in all five. They all offer water bowls, butter lamps,and incense; sit in the same cross-legged manner; use vajras, bells, and
hand-drums; play the same types of horns, cymbals, and drums; chant in loud voices; offer and taste consecrated meat and alcohol during special ceremonies (
); and servebutter tea during all ritual assemblies. Following the originally Bon customs, they all offer 
(sculpted cones of barley flour mixed with butter); enlist local spirits for protection; dispel harmful spirits with elaborate rituals; make butter sculptures on specialoccasions; and hang colorful prayer flags. They all house relics of great masters in
monuments and circumambulate them - Buddhists clockwise, Bonposcounterclockwise. Even their styles of religious art are extremely similar. Theproportions of the figures in paintings and statues always follow the same set guidelines.
Tulku System of Reincarnate Lamas 
Each of the five Tibetan traditions also has the
system. Tulkus are lines of reincarnate lamas, great practitioners who direct their rebirths. When they pass away,usually in a special type of death-juncture meditation, their disciples use special meansto look for and locate their reincarnations among young children, after an appropriatetime has passed. The disciples return the young reincarnations to their former households and train them with the best teachers. Monastics and laypeople treat thetulkus of all five traditions with the highest respect. They often consult tulkus and other great masters for a
(prognostication) about important matters in their lives, usuallymade by tossing three dice while invoking one or another Buddha-figure. Although all Tibetan traditions include training in textual study, debate, ritual, andmeditation, the emphasis varies from monastery to monastery even within the sameTibetan school and from individual to individual even within the same monastery.Moreover, except for the high lamas and the elderly or sick, the monks and nuns taketurns in doing the menial labor required to support the monasteries and nunneries, suchas cleaning the assembly halls, arranging offerings, fetching water and fuel, cooking,and serving tea. Even if certain monks or nuns primarily study, debate, teach, or meditate; still, engaging in communal prayer, chanting, and ritual takes up a significantportion of everyone's day and night. To say that Gelug and Sakya emphasize study,while Kagyu and Nyingma stress meditation is a superficial generalization.
Mixed Lineages 
Many lineages of teachings mix and cross among the five Tibetan traditions. Thelineage of 
The Guhyasamaja Tantra 
, for example, passed through the translator Marpa
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